Robert Duvall has attempted to translate his passion for and fascination with dance, his real-life girlfriend Luciana Pedraza and mob hit men onto film. The resulting Assassination Tango is a monotonously shuffling pet project that nearly induces sleep as it trips over and shoots itself in its celluloid feet. The power, beauty and rapture of the sensuous Argentine dance don’t ripen to fruition, and nor does the accompanying character study of a killer who is consummately devoted to the daughter of his lover.
Duvall made an impressive film debut as the mysterious Boo Radley in the 1963 classic To Kill a Mockingbird. Then, he peppered subsequent years with such unforgettable supporting roles as mob attorney Tom Hagen in The Godfather and the dynamic copter chieftain and surf nut Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now who just loved the smell of napalm in the morning. In 1983, Duvall won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Tender Mercies and numerous accolades for writing and directing Angelo, My Love, the muscular story of an 11-year-old gypsy boy. In 1996, Duvall also wrote, directed and starred in the celebrated film The Apostle. Now Tango arrives as a crushing disappointment.
Duvall wears the hats of writer, star, director and producer here without making much impact in any position. The script is watery. Duvall’s acting is competent, but he has provided himself very little to chew. The attempt here is to sprout a gritty slice-of-life rumination on one man’s contradictory personality in a pot of thriller fertilizer. It fails. Assassination Tango dances to themes in which machismo doubles as a necessity and a banana peel in masculine emotional development. Ironically, the film never establishes its own firm footing and, even more damning, is generally boring.
The story begins in Brooklyn. Senior citizen and ace hit man John J. Anderson (Duvall in a slicked-back gray ponytail) spends his nights committing contract murders and his days hanging out at dance clubs. He tells his girlfriend (the perfectly earthy Kathy Baker) that he works as a high-tech security consultant and is so concerned with her daughter’s safety that he secretly follows her to school. He, like Duvall himself, is a man of many hats.
John J. promises not to miss the girl’s upcoming birthday party and reluctantly accepts a job that takes him to Buenos Aires. He is to kill a retired general who has gone unpunished for his crimes against humanity during the country’s recent political and social upheavals. His contacts drape the killing in talk of justice. John J. shares his moral and political attitude with them: “Just put the money on the table.”
Complications arise. John J. is not so sure his associates have planned the job well enough to ensure success, and the arrival of the general is delayed. He spends the next few weeks visiting the city’s dance clubs. He becomes infatuated with a tall, elegant dancer (Pedraza) who agrees to teach him the finer points of the tango while possible romance whispers from the wings, and the dance’s complexity and disciplined demands are equated with those of John J.’s profession.
Assassination Tango is about reclaiming one’s soul through contact with the innocence and wonder of a child. It is about the preoccupation with self-image and the capability of some humans to be both ruthless and loving, amoral yet touched by innocence and art. And Duvall wants to impress upon us the transcendental power of the tango. Unfortunately, the film fails to get under the skin of its characters or its sketchy social commentary. It resonates more like a feeble soft-shoe number than an intense dance with life and death.
I watched Assassination Tango with three fellow movie junkies. We split, 2-2, about the virtues of The Apostle but agreed unanimously that this production was a basic yawner. To paraphrase the parting comment of one associate, with this kind of film, you spend the first half waiting for something to happen and the second half waiting for it to end.